Buck Burch’s voice drips in frustration.
As a 13-year missionary through the International Mission Board, Burch and his family presented the gospel among the Russian people. They could because of gifts through the Cooperative Program. Instead of worrying where their next meal would come from or paying heating bills in winters where temperatures dipped to 25 degrees below zero, Burch could focus on reaching others for Christ. Cooperative Program funds also covered half the costs for two Master’s degrees he earned at Southeastern Seminary.
So, excuse him if he gets a little bothered at the prospect of missionaries suffering because of fake news stories.
It’s a very real situation for Burch, Georgia Baptist Mission Board state missionary for Cooperative Program Development. Currently he’s planning a trip to the southern part of the state. The reason? News reached him of a church pulling its Cooperative Program support upon hearing Southern Baptists were building mosques.
“It’s frustrating when a church member, pastor, or group from a church approaches me or calls with an upset tone because they’ve downloaded some article from the internet without doing due diligence to discover the truthfulness of the issue,” explains Burch.
Genesis of a controversy and misinformation
The End Times, which describes itself an “Apocalyptic Christian Satire” site, published an article May 28 outlining a “mosque building program” by the SBC. Purportedly reason was to promote “religious liberty” and “niceness.” Pseudo comments by Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore filled out the story based on a controversy over the building of a mosque in New Jersey.
In May, the ERLC as well as International Mission Board joined a diverse group in an amicus brief supporting the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge. In it, the document addressed a lawsuit against a New Jersey township that rejected an application to build a mosque. A fallout developed among Southern Baptists over entities’ role in the matter and ongoing discussions over religious freedom.
“I’ve received multiple calls from churches recently about the ERLC and IMB signatures on the amicus brief. Many think we’ve shifted our Cooperative Program monies to building mosques, but this is simply not true,” Burch states.
“This amicus brief was, in my opinion, not the wisest choice for establishing an alliance for religious liberty. However, it seems the foundation of the brief is defense against a township from being anti-religious.
“I’m traveling throughout Georgia now to talk to different groups to clarify the truth instead of the misinformation being published on satirical internet websites.”
Satire goes back as far as ancient Egypt and the Greeks, continuing through the Middle Ages, Victorian Era, and up to today. The biggest difference, though, is distribution. Imagine Chaucer, Voltaire, and Mark Twain with the internet and Facebook. No one compares those names with the ones on Snopes’ Field Guide to Fake News Sites and Hoax Purveyors. But, the platform given by social media and eyeballs hungry for another dose of confirmation bias can make unadulterated truth as lonely as the third stanza of a Baptist hymnal.
Even Snopes.com, the oft-cited digital judge on whether a news story’s authenticity, struggles to keep up with fact-checking every post on the growing number of fakes news sites. A major problem, says Snopes founder and operator David Mikkelson, are legitimate sites such as The Onion that present seemingly incredulous stories that still dupe readers. Another happens when legitimate news organizations don’t do their due diligence in verifying facts and share the story.
Don’t take the bait
Such sites of interest to Southern Baptists vary in the level of misrepresenting actual news versus comedic satire. For instance, readers of The Babylon Bee wouldn’t believe in the development of a “Sweatin’ to the Hymnal” workout video or water slide baptismal, though a church’s statement of faith comprised of U2 lyrics isn’t entirely unbelievable.
The largest distributor of fake news, Facebook, recently beefed up steps to do away with clickbait. A blog post released by the company last week explained that cutting back on such stories will rely mostly on gauging headlines.
“These are headlines that intentionally leave out crucial information, or mislead people, forcing people to click to find out the answer,” it said. “For example: ‘When She Looked Under Her Couch Cushions And Saw THIS… I Was SHOCKED!’; ‘He Put Garlic In His Shoes Before Going To Bed And What Happens Next Is Hard To Believe’; or ‘The Dog Barked At The Deliveryman And His Reaction Was Priceless.’”
Executive Committee response
Ultimately, the mosque controversy necessitated a response from the SBC Executive Committee.
“The Southern Baptist Convention promotes planting and building soul-winning Baptist churches that proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the one and only means of salvation,” SBC Executive Committee President and CEO Frank Page said in a press statement. “Neither the Convention nor any of its entities promotes building houses of worship for any other religious group.
Around the same time, Smyrna Baptist Association director Ray Coleman received a phone call about the matter. Within 36 hours he’d gotten multiple queries.
“I’d ask where they heard Southern Baptists were building a mosque and the response was usually ‘I saw it on the internet’, or ‘On Facebook,’” Coleman remembers from his office in Douglas. “As the story spread people stopped looking to see if it was actually true.
“No one could give me a solid source. They assumed I’d seen it, too.”
Coleman pinpoints when accuracy in reporting became important to him.
“I was in the eighth grade and heard a pastor say something from the pulpit about a well-known individual in town,” he says. “I repeated it at school and someone asked me for my source. I didn’t want to say for certain, just that my source was reliable.”
Coleman’s hesitation, he shares now, came from a moment of doubt. Was what he’d heard true? He later learned the accusation by the pastor indeed was incorrect.
“It was a watershed moment for me. Now, I want to be sure of a news story’s accuracy when I see it,” he points out. “I’ve been wrong since then, but I’ve tried to be diligent in seeking the truth.”
Shining a light on misinformation as well as the truth is a Christian concern, adds Burch. It can largely be avoided, he asserts, if those claiming Christ follow Matthew 18 in dealing with the source of a rumor.
“Satan’s desire is to build mistrust between brothers. In this case, we need to follow the biblical pattern for reconciliation to receive a clear word directly from Russell Moore and David Platt about why they chose to sign the amicus brief,” Burch says. “To abruptly stop missions giving because of internet propaganda is not only unbiblical but without practical merit. Simply check the facts first.”